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In a stunning display of enthusiasm, more than 9.6m Texans have voted ahead of election day, surpassing the total number of votes cast four years ago.

What that means for the races up and down the ballot is “the million dollar question”, says Emily M Farris, an associate professor of political science at Texas Christian University.

“We just don’t really know,” she says.

In what has been a reliably red state with low voter participation, 30.4% of this year’s ballots have been cast by voters who didn’t participate in 2016 at all, according to Tom Bonier, chief executive of political data firm TargetSmart. Turnout has surged especially among Asian, college-educated white and young Texans.

“You can definitively say now, more voters under the age of 30 have voted already in Texas than have ever voted in any election, and that’s remarkable,” Bonier says.

Nearly 4.2m Texans who voted early do not have a history of voting in either party’s primary election, Republican consultant Derek Ryan wrote in a report on Friday. Around 1.7m live in Republican-dominated precincts, while 1.2m are from areas that typically swing Democratic.

Ryan expects more than 12m Texans to vote when all is said and done, which would amount to a double-digit spike in turnout from 2016.

“Clearly people are interested, and they’re motivated with this election,” says Juan Carlos Huerta, a professor of political science at Texas A&M University, Corpus Christi.

But at the US-Mexico border, large Hispanic communities and Democratic strongholds with chronically low turnout are not keeping up with the rest of the state. In El Paso county, where Covid-19 cases have surged and officials have imposed tougher restrictions, 45.4% of registered voters have voted. Those numbers have only reached 48.2% in Hidalgo county, in the Rio Grande Valley, compared to 57% statewide.

“Texas is a tough state to vote in,” Huerta says. “And, you know, there’s plenty of folks who would say ‘Oh, that’s by design,’ because it’s designed to discourage participation.”

Donald Trump is still slightly favored to win Texas – a state he took by nine points in 2016 – though polls showing a close race have ignited a firestorm of speculation about whether this is the year the state actually turns blue.

“We feel good with where we’re at, but we need to keep on going, and you know, we’re not there yet,” says Abhi Rahman, communications director for the Texas Democratic party.

On top of the battle for the White House, Texas is home to a key Senate race, as air force veteran MJ Hegar tries to unseat Republican John Cornyn. But Cornyn is still favored to win re-election, and despite a more competitive race than many would have predicted back in March, “it would be a surprise” if Hegar prevailed, Farris says.

“Texas hasn’t elected a Democrat, you know, statewide in more than two decades now,” she says. “And so that kind of shift in Texas would be a pretty big change.”